Today, January 24, is the Feast of St. Francis de Sales
The Gentleman Saint . . .
St. Francis de Sales, Bishop of Geneva and Doctor of the Church, was born in 1567 to a wealthy family in Savoy, the area around where modern France and Switzerland meet, in the years following the Protestant Revolution in Europe. Many people in the area had not been able to hear Catholic teachings or attend Mass for 60 years, but St. Francis De Sales brought many people back to the Catholic faith through his gentle ways, earning him the nicknames “The Gentle Christ of Geneva” and “The Gentleman Saint.”
Before taking religious vows, Francis had studied law as his parents had always intended. However, after being freed from a prolonged temptation to despair, when he looked on a miraculous image of Our Lady at St. Etienne-des-Grès, Francis made a vow of chastity and consecrated himself to the Blessed Virgin Mary. He heard a message to “Leave all and follow me,” which he discerned as a call to the priesthood. De Sales’ father, who had secured a position in the senate for his son, and had selected a noble heiress for him to marry, initially opposed Francis’ intention to embrace ecclesiastical life. However, when the position of Provost of Geneva (located in Annecy in Savoy due to Calvinist rule in Geneva) was obtained for Francis, his father yielded and Francis received holy orders in 1593.
St. Francis de Sales then devoted himself to preaching, hearing confessions and then the next year, volunteered to evangelize the True Faith in La Chablais, where the Genevan Protestants had imposed the “reformed” faith. He risked his life to travel the district and preached constantly, and over the course of 4 years, brought 72,000 French Calvinists back to the Catholic faith. In fact, in 1596 on Christmas day, Francis offered the first public Mass in the city of Thonon in over 60 years.
In 1602, Francis de Sales was consecrated Bishop of Geneva and his first acts were to institute catechetical instructions for the faithful and regulations for the guidance of clergy. He visited the parishes of the diocese and became well known for his kindness and for his love of the poor. He wrote numerous letters and published many works, including the spiritual classics – “An Introduction to the Devout Life,” and the “Treatise on the Love of God” and the saint delivered many zealous sermons that remain famous to this day – many of the greatest of his sermons are collected in two volumes: “Sermons on Our Lady” and “Sermons on Prayer.” St. Francis lived humbly, and his food and clothes were plain. He did not disregard the value of penance, but emphasized practicing penance and all acts of faith with a motive of love for God and for neighbor.
In addition to the two great spiritual classics that he wrote, St. Francis de Sales also wrote a series of apologetic pamphlets which have been complied into a single volume entitled “The Catholic Controversy” and he also has left us an important collection of correspondence on spiritual direction with St. Jane de Chantal entitled “The Letters of Spiritual Direction.”
St. Francis de Sales founded the Order of the Visitation of Holy Mary for women, with St. Jane Frances de Chantal. The Order today numbers 3,000 women in 168 monasteries throughout the world.
In the 19th century, several associations, of both laymen and clergy, were founded under the patronage of St. Francis de Sales, including the Salesians of Don Bosco, originally called the Society of St. Francis de Sales. It was founded in by St. John Bosco in Italy, inspired by St. Francis’ witness and love for the poor, with the mission to care for the young and poor children of the industrial revolution and to educate boys to the priesthood. The order was approved definitively by Pope Pius IX in 1874 and by 1911 had grown to be established worldwide, with houses through Europe, the United States, South Africa, India and China. The Salesian order continues to operate today, and as of 1995, the order counted over 17,000 members in 1,616 houses worldwide. The order is also the third largest Catholic missionary organization in the world.